Cornetist Josh Berman’s trio opens up with drummer Paul Lytton
Four years ago the Chicago cornetist Josh Berman dropped his most convincing and original statement as a bandleader, a trio recording of unerring succinctness and dazzling inter-connectedness titled A Dance and a Hop (Delmark). The group featured bassist Jason Roebke and drummer Frank Rosaly. When the album was released I wrote, “the members seem to be wired to make rubato a lingua franca. Berman continues to savor tart melodic shapes as he twists and works over elegant little phrases, but just as important is how he manipulates his horn, shifting between full-bodied cries and extended techniques that transform it into a noisemaker a la Axel Dörner.” His skeletal writing functioned brilliantly with a trio that exhibited quicksilver agility and electric rapport, moving as a single organism. Whenever I’ve listened to that album I’ve envisioned one of those thumb (or push) puppets, where a small plate with a spring controls wild gyrations of some animal atop the surface, with wild herky-jerk motions—but instead of a single character, Berman’s trio featured three of them, all moving impossibly in sync.
In a short profile I wrote about him in the late summer of 2017, in advance of the debut of a new quartet with Roebke, reedist Darius Jones, and drummer Michael Vatcher, he discussed the impact the trio had on him:
The trio sparked a new way of working for me. I really loved working that way—rather than coming up with arrangements, you write pieces that are phrases and gestures, some of which can be quite tunelike. I like tunes. With the trio record, I think I figured out a way to do a lot of things I like. I like tunes and I like free improvisation, and I like it when they happen at once.
Not long after making the record Rosaly moved from Chicago to Amsterdam, so the leader was forced to sub out on the trio’s sporadic local gigs, and when a European tour was organized—and Rosaly was unavailable—he enlisted the singular free improviser Paul Lytton, a tireless experimenter but, like Berman, a musician with a deep connection to the swing impulses of jazz. Now, thanks to Astral Spirits, we can hear why that experience opened the cornetist up to more febrile, unstable collaborations. Released last Friday, Trio Discrepancies maintains that highly reactive, nimble sense of movement, but the performances dispense with composed themes in favor of long-form improvisations where the leader’s innate sense of melody arrives in terse sallies erupting from extended passages of herky-jerk abstraction. Berman’s puckered tone, fatback licks and tart smears—as ever bridging the gap between the garrulous, vocalic excursions of Ellington trumpeters like Bubber Miley and Rex Stewart and modern seekers like Wadada Leo Smith and Nate Wooley--are steadily buffeted by the rhythm section’s shifting gambits. The bassist unfurls deep, woody lines and the drummer peppers his flow with wonderfully jarring, chaotic accents, but despite the turbulence they forge an inexorable sense of forward motion, providing a platform for the cornetist to toggle masterfully between lyric flurries and knotted outbursts. Unlike the airtight miniatures on A Dance and a Hop, these pieces allow the players to resituate the same language onto a wide-open plane—pushing and pulling in changing directions and allowing spontaneous motifs to play out fully, although each musician never lets any single notion overstay it’s welcome. As you can hear below on the album’s lengthy opening track “Padova,” named like the others, for the city in which they were performed, the trio manages to avoid the usual ebb-and-flow of many extended improvisation—there’s no shortage of ideas and the combo thrives on carving out space as much as it does piling on sound.
Earlier this year on Astral Editions, the digital-only subsidiary of Astral Spirits, a number of shorter pieces from the same tour were released as Trio Correspondences, functioning as more specific studies rather than lengthy narratives. Below you can check out one called “Short Piece From Café Mir.”
Danil Trifonov, Chopin Evocations (Deutsche Grammophon)
Piero Bittolo Bon’s Bread & Fox, Big Hell on Air (Auand)
Camarão, The Imaginary Soundtrack to a Brazilian Western Movie 1964-1974 (Analog Africa)
Klaus Lang, Drei Goldene Tiger (Kairos)
Ned Doheny, Separate Oceans (Numero Group)